April 19, 2015

The Artist (2011)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Stars: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

What it's about. Set circa 1927 to 1933. Silent film star Jean Dujardin gives vivacious newcomer Bérénice Bejo her start as a screen actress. She becomes a headliner during the nascent sound era, while Dujardin's career wanes. He refuses to adapt, loses his contract, and descends into alcoholism and depression. His wife Penelope Ann Miller leaves him, although his doggie and his chauffeur James Cromwell remain loyal.

Bejo has carried a torch for Dujardin despite their reversal of fortunes. She pressures studio boss John Goodman to recover his career, but Dujardin's pride remains a formidable obstacle.

How others will see it. The audacious making of a black and white silent film, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, in 2011, along with a crowd-pleasing love story and a cute little doggie, was enough to win over critics. The box office was outstanding for the genre, but less than overwhelming for a movie that won five Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor) out of ten nominations.

At imdb.com, the user vote total of 170K is impressive, as is the lofty user rating of 8.0. The rating is consistent across all demographics. Most viewers are completely charmed. But, as always, there is a noticeable minority that proclaims that the emperor has no clothes, to little avail.

How I felt about it. Late in the movie, there is a scene that has our fallen protagonist putting the barrel of a handgun in his mouth. He is about to commit suicide, but of course does not, since that would spoil the crowd-pleasing happy ending.

One has to wonder: suppose he did blow his head off, on camera. How many Oscars would the film have won then? Probably zero, because hardly anyone would have enjoyed seeing it.

But remember, all prior scenes, the supermajority of the movie, would be the same. What is changed is that a phony happy ending is substituted for the film's logical conclusion. A cop out fantasy ending.

We know that Peppy Miller is a fictional character because she acts like no woman you are ever likely to meet. Buying Valentin's furniture, hiring his chauffeur, risking her contract to insist upon making a film with a man who would rather check out on life. This is an ambitious, fun-loving woman who would be looking ahead, instead of back.

Admittedly, there is a real-life role model: Greta Garbo. Garbo had successfully made the transition to talkies, while her former co-star (and matinee idol) John Gilbert had not. Garbo insisted that Gilbert play her love interest in (Queen Christina) (1933), and her studio caved in. But the rest of the story is blatant fiction.

There is also a cinematic precedent to Valentin's character, James Mason in A Star is Born (1954). Mason, an alcoholic has-been actor, walks into the ocean so that his moviestar wife Judy Garland won't sacrifice her career for his sake. The sad ending of that film contrasts, though, with the unlikely reborn career of Valentin (Valentino?) as a Fred Astaire hoofer.

As in Sunset Blvd. (1950), the chauffeur remains loyal to the faded actress. Again, though, the actress does not regain her career. Instead, it appears she is headed for an asylum for the criminally insane. Come to think of it, shouldn't Valentin be charged with arson?

The other obvious comparison is with Singin' in the Rain, which also takes place in Hollywood during the transition to sound. A Star is Born (1954) and Singin' in the Rain are both vastly superior to The Artist, partly because they don't lie to the audience. The careers of the drunkard actor and screech-voiced actress are over.

One of the problems I had with The Artist is that its symbolism is so obvious. The long staircase with sound actors rising up, and silent actors moving down. The end of Valentin's safari movie with him sinking slowly and completely into quicksand. Valentin setting his past films on fire, even The Mark of Zorro (1920), which Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. made instead.

The other problem is that the characters and situations are exaggerated. Valentin, the unemployed and hard-drinking sad sack. Valentin's loveless and humorless wife. Why exactly did he marry her? Peppy's love for Valentin, which she demonstrates again and again over years, when she has a much more interesting life of her own.